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Bill Cirone: School Climate Matters — Positive Attitudes Help Create Positive Results

Parents and other visitors to public schools will probably notice a common dynamic: High academic achievement and a positive school climate go hand in hand.

When we visit schools in Santa Barbara County, we frequently see examples of great campus climates supporting high achievement. Schools that are performing well academically have campuses and classrooms that are buzzing with activity, excitement and energy — generated by students who are fully engaged in their learning and eagerly interacting with their teachers.

We certainly saw these great climates while touring Orcutt Junior High and Jonata Middle School, the two California Distinguished Schools in Santa Barbara County this year. And the county’s new Teacher of the Year, Kelly Choi, is quick to point out the value of attitude and atmosphere in working with at-risk students in the Dos Pueblos High School Academy.

“My strength is creating a relationship with my students built on honesty, trust and respect,” she said. “But mostly, I just kill them with kindness. My expectations are high, my curriculum is rigorous and my students’ success rate is excellent. All this happens because everything I do is rooted in being kind and encouraging.”

This dynamic is also supported by a new study of California schools that are “beating the odds” by outperforming others that have similar demographics.

In this study of 1,715 middle schools and high schools, WestEd, a respected nonprofit research agency based in San Francisco, found that one of the best predictors of high student achievement is a “positive school climate,” as measured by how connected, motivated and safe students feel at school.

For students, “feeling connected” is a tremendous motivator, but no single method works for every student. That’s why it’s exciting to see the wide variety of ways in which connections are made. That could be through sports; performing arts or clubs; innovative academy programs or a special class; a school garden; or other activities at lunchtime and after school.

Some schools use a “buddy system” that matches a first-year student with an older one to foster mentoring relationships, which benefit the older student as much as the younger one. Other schools strengthen their ties with students and parents by performing as de facto community centers. All of these methods can contribute to student success by building personal connections.

Leaders of California public schools have worked especially hard in the last several years to keep delivering high-quality education to their students as the Great Recession has forced many budget cuts. These school board members, administrators, teachers and volunteers have done their best to maintain not only their academic programs but also the good atmosphere on their campuses.

When I visit schools, I am always impressed by the can-do, will-do, whatever-it-takes attitude of our principals, teachers and school staff at every level. Often working under less than ideal conditions, they work tirelessly to create a climate in their schools to keep students at the center and help all students succeed. When teachers like Choi “just kill them with kindness,” we see incredible results.

The WestEd study merely affirms what we already know: School climate matters.

— Bill Cirone is Santa Barbara County’s superintendent of schools. The opinions expressed are his own.

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